Everything Means Something Else.
Lauren Gunderson’s I And You is a fiercely clever, little 90 minutes in a theatre seat. Two people have a conversation. It isn’t just any casual conversation, though. You can’t do casual conversation onstage. For one thing it’d be rude. People pay good money to watch the conversation. But also: you can’t have a casual conversation onstage because everyone is watching. You have to prepare. And if that preparation happens to include this particular script by Lauren Gundrerson, every last sentence is going to have some kind of double or triple meaning. And if it happens to be directed by David Cecsarini, the depth of multiple levels of meaning are going to appealingly drift across the stage in a very organic fashion thanks to the talents of talented actors Christina Panfilio as Caroline and Ibraheem Farmer as Anthony. It’s only 90 minutes or so without intermission, but there’s A LOT to think about here. Very clever stuff.
It’s a Messy Bedroom
Earlier this season, we got to see Jason Fassl decorate a young woman’s bedroom in Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of Russian Transit. With I And You, Rick Rasmussen comes-up with the precise look for the bedroom of contemporary shut-in high school student Caroline. There are pictures cluttering the walls including a little shrine to retro-pop king Elvis and quite a lot of her photography. I heard someone in the audience mentioning that it looked as though the entire set could be folded-up into a little box and carried offstage at a moment’s notice. That’s no accident. This is the entire world for one high school senior. Rasmussen does a brilliant job of making it look big without losing track of the fact that it’s a very small space in which Caroline is forced to live. It’s more than just a place where the smoke detector seems to constantly be going-off and the cell reception suddenly seems to have disappeared: it’s the only place where Caroline can live.
When Adults Play Teenagers
About a decade and a half ago I had the pleasure of doing a phone interview with film director Catherine Hardwicke. During this interview, Hardwicke had inadvertently convinced me that the only way to do serious drama about teenagers was by having the teenagers PLAYED by teenagers. (Her indie movie Thirteen had Nikki Reed and Evan Rachel Wood playing 13 year olds while they were in their mid-teens.)
Granted, it IS difficult to get high school actors on a professional show like this. There are child labor laws and things of that nature...not to mention the pressure a show like this would have on a couple of teenagers as they are the only ones in the cast..but...we DO have First Stage here in Milwaukee...and it’s one of the best children’s theatre programs in like...the world. So there’s a part of me that feels like it’s almost disrespectful to try to stage a teenaged drama without using actual teenagers...but here it wasn’t an issue at all. With Next Act's staging of I And You I know I’m watching adults play a couple of high school seniors and...I’m okay with it.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I honestly don’t know exactly what makes actors Cristina Panfilio and Ibraheem Farmer so convincingly adolescent. I don’t know exactly what director David Cecsarini did to make it work but...it works.
It doesn’t hurt that the only two characters in the play are both teenagers. This is their world and the stage has brought it to us, so there’s no contrast between adults and teenagers to muddle things-up.
It doesn’t hurt that both Panfilio and Ibraheem have done a really good job of rendering the specific graces and awkwardnesses of late adolescence with a very close attention to detail and a great respect for early adulthood. They’re not playing down to the roles or exaggerating awkwardness. This is just a couple of people.
It also doesn’t hurt that Lauren Gunderson’s dialogue feels very authentically millennial teen. And it doesn’t hurt that Caroline is actually a really appealing character.
In Caroline, Gunderson has created the type of high school senior you would’ve wanted to hang out with or date. She’s sharp. She’s witty. She’s unobtainable on account of some really misfortunate health. So there’s that darkness that’s so appealing in high school. Okay...so yes: I would have had a HUGE crush on Caroline in high school, but there’s real wit in her dialogue and Panfilio does a brilliant job of delivering very, very clever on-liners that are clever, playful and sharply tactical. Panfilio’s graceful approach to the character makes Caroline one of the more vivid characters I’ve seen in recent years. It’s not real often that I want to hang out with a character after the end of a performance. At the end of this show I want the character of Caroline babysitting my kids. (She’s just that cool.)
It’s nice to see Cloud b Twilight Turtle® getting some work here. Over the years, the luminous, little plushy and his cohorts have been more accustomed to performing light shows on the ceilings of much smaller audiences of much smaller people while making “fear of the dark a thing of the past.” Here Twilight Turtle® plays Turtle...Caroline’s symbolic little, plush friend. Nice to see the plush turtle branching out and doing a little work onstage.
Next Act Theatre’s production of I And You runs through Apr. 29 on 255 S. Water St. For ticket requests and more visit nextact.org or call 414-278-0765. My concise review of the show runs in the next print edition of The Shepherd-Express.